Does your team understand it’s mission?

March 23, 2007

By definition, teams are created to achieve a specific purpose – the mission. Ensuring that team members understand the mission, and the importance of their roles in relationship to the mission, is essential.

That could be the end of this post…

Unfortunately, teams don’t always ensure that the mission is fully understood. In fact, circumstances often challenge mission-awareness, such as times when teams are geographically dispersed (virtual teams) or when team membership is fluid (e.g., team members have specialized roles on multiple teams.)

This short story from stickyminds provides a good illustration. [via Raven Young.]

One team that I worked with told me this story about what can happen when a vision is not shared with the team. They were using an agile approach to software development, and had a product owner who, every two weeks, would attend the planning meeting to tell the team what he wanted them to work on for the next two-week iteration.

During one of these meetings, he told the team that he wanted them to delete the customer whenever the customer selected an opt-out option. The team completed this work and demonstrated it for the product owner, who was pleased with the outcome and accepted the feature. Another successful iteration followed, and another. Then the product owner told the team that for this next iteration, he wanted them to take the deleted customer records and prep them for data mining by the R&D staff.

The team said “Whoa! You told us you wanted the customer deleted when they opted out, so that’s what we did—we didn’t archive that information, we permanently deleted it.”

The product owner was dumbfounded. “How could you do that? Don’t you know that one of the goals of this project is to figure out why we’re losing customers?”

Umm, no.

The team members responsible for the work had never learned the true mission of their efforts. Who knows how this came about…

Perhaps, they were still busy with a previous project and not involved in start-up for this one. Perhaps the team leader hoarded information or communicated poorly about the overall objectives.

Regardless the immediate cause, the effect was wasted time and effort, a dissatisfied client who likely lost faith in the team (if not the entire organization,) and the generally feeling that processes were dysfunctional. No one would be surprised if the client pressed the DELETE key!

How does your team ensure a common understanding of its primary mission? Look around. Is there any chance that team members may not be aware of or fully understand the overall objectives? If so, its worth taking the time to discuss and clarify.

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Telling versus selling

March 18, 2007

Every team must determine what tasks and activities are needed to meet its objectives and decide which team members will work on which tasks.


Team leaders can make these decisions, then tell the team of the overall plan and the responsibilities of each team member. Using this approach, team leaders will often consult with some or all team members before making decisions about tasks and assignments.

A wagon wheel provides a good analogy for this type of team structure. Think of the team leader as the center and team members as spokes. Wagon wheels can work efficiently and cover a lot of ground once they gain momentum.

However, wagon wheels are entirely reliant on the center to hold them together. The center serves as the wheel’s connection to the rest of the wagon, just as a ‘telling’ team leader might serve as the team’s primary contact with the larger organization. Although the wagon wheel functions as a unit toward a common objective, the individual spokes have no dynamics between them. The wheel does not serve as a source of energy for the wagon, but rather relies on external motivation.


Alternatively, teams can collaboratively make decisions about tasks and assignments. Instead of the team leader ‘telling’ team members their plan, decision making becomes a matter of each team member ‘selling’ others on why various approaches should be adopted. As the process of selling convinces the team which are the most sound strategies, team members become committed to the plan, the tasks and their assignments.

An analogy of this type of team structure is the atom. Individual team members, including the team leader, are the electron, protons and neutrons. The team’s primary objective is the nucleus, and serves to hold the team together around its common purpose.

Dynamics between and among the members of an ‘atomic’ team generate energy and synergy, which serves to propel the team’s work and provide additional resources for the larger organization. The role of the team leader varies based on the needs. In self-managing ‘atomic’ teams, leadership is dispersed across its members.

How is your team functioning? Are you telling or selling? Is each team member a cog in the wheel or integral parts of an energy-generating, ‘atomic’ team?

Listening – a team leaders most beneficial action

March 4, 2007

“Nature gave us one tongue and two ears so we could hear twice as much as we speak.” ~ Epictetus

Terrific story by Kent Blumberg about how one manager’s patient listening changed the culture of a whole organization. The story is applicable to many business situations.

Scenario: A new manager is assigned to an under-performing work unit that has recently experienced internal strife. Although individuals perform their tasks, there is no sense of common purpose.

To address the situation, Kent explains that the new manager (Dave) began holding regular meetings with the entire team. The manager did not have an agenda for the meetings, nor did he dominate the discussion. Rather…

Dave simply asked, “What do you want to talk about?” and then waited. For the first few months, no one said anything in these meetings. Dave thanked each crew at the end of the meeting and they went on to work. Eventually, folks started speaking up. They would talk about issues on the crew, issues with their supervisor, questions about the mill, questions about the company, and many other things. Dave would ask questions to clarify the issues and the HR manager wrote it all down.

Dave listened and asked questions, but was careful never to make a decision or take action based on what he heard in these meetings. That was the supervisor’s job.

[Snipped paragraphs about how supervisors and crew chiefs resolved issues raised during meetings.]

By the time I arrived, as one of Dave’s direct reports, the listening meetings rarely turned up any negative surprises. Instead, the crews mostly wanted to make suggestions about the larger business.

Listening is possibly the most beneficial action a leader can take when trust within a team or organization has been strained or shattered. By providing a forum for team members to give their input, the leader sends a signal that their input matters.

Real listening requires acknowledging what was heard. It is not necessary to adopt each action suggested by a team member, but it is important to demonstrate that each suggestion or complaint is heard and fully considered.

Read the entire story on Kent’s blog.

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Business results essential for achieving culture of collaboration

February 19, 2007

gap_logo2.gifGood intentions about collaboration and teamwork are great, but they must be matched with solid business results. That’s the lesson I take away from reading Business Week’s article about Paul Pressler’s Fall From The Gap.

Pressler sought to instill a culture of collaboration that, unfortunately, met with less than stellar results. Certainly Pressler’s cultural change initiatives were not the only factors in the Gap’s decade-long decline, but it may have contributed.

It was Gap’s longstanding corporate culture that caught Pressler’s attention early on. At the time, the no-nonsense corporate mantra was “Own it, do it, get it done.” But Pressler thought this ethos didn’t sufficiently promote collaboration. He set out to promote a new environment built around the slogan “Purpose, Values, and Behaviors.” Among the catchphrases were bromides such as: “Explore, Create, and Exceed Together.” Pamphlets promoting communication and teamwork landed on employees’ desks. Posters and banners trumpeting the bland new slogans went up around headquarters.

In the beginning, “people were very receptive” to the effort, says Alan J. Barocas, the company’s former senior vice-president for real estate. “It was embraced.” But eye-rolling started as the initiative began consuming a lot of time. Former employees say they had to sit through countless meetings, workshops, and role-playing seminars where Pressler and his hr executives discussed the new culture. Many staffers felt they were wasting their time in get-togethers that didn’t address the crucial matter of creating and marketing clothes. “hr was out of control,” says a former insider.

Pressler’s collaboration initiatives may have met with a different fate if retail sales had improved instead of continuing to fall throughout his tenure. Guiding an organizational culture toward greater collaboration, teamwork and openness has been a hallmark of success for many leaders, such as Whole Foods Market’s CEO John Mackey. However, the same initiatives can be viewed as time-wasting distractions from core business objectives when they are not accompanied by positive results.

I like that the Gap’s board gave Pressler several years to achieve results at the retail giant, because a dose of patience is often needed when trying to reverse negative trends. Unfortunately, the article indicates that a series of seemingly bad operational decisions doomed Pressler’s efforts.

What’s the lesson for the rest of us? I believe it is that team leaders and managers should develop both cultural and operational strategies jointly, ensuring that each supports and reinforces the other.

Easier said than done, I know, but imperative nonetheless.

What are your thoughts?

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Taking time for vacation is a teamwork responsibility

November 16, 2006

The latest Hudson Employment Index was covered on all the mass media news outlets today. The headlines are:

  • 37% of workers will not take all of their vacation time this year
  • 24% of workers will not take any time off all year,
  • most workers who do take time will stay connected with their work via phone calls, email, etc.

From a teamwork perspective, I see taking vacation and time off as a serious responsibility just like any other work assignment. If team members fail to take time to relax away from the workplace, the entire team is likely to suffer the consequences. These consequences can include lost productivity, higher levels of stress, unnecessary tension with co-workers, lack of creativity, and a feeling of entitlement because of so-called “sacrifices.”

Working too much overtime is a similar matter and holds many of the same pitfalls. How many time have you seen great team members burn out and pull down projects because they tried to work nights and weekends without adequate breaks?

Most people do not skip vacations or work overtime to cause their teams to fail. Quite the contrary, most team members will have great intentions and will not recognize the potential negative consequences. Highly productive people may believe they can continue to function well during endless periods of non-stop focus on work. In these situations, it becomes incumbent on managers/team leaders to make workers aware that periodic breaks are not only an option, but are necessary for the employee to maintain productivity and satisfaction.

Consider what another finding from the Hudson study might tell us about those who opt to take vacations:

Only eight percent of workers earning more than $100k per year have not taken off from work this year.

I see two ways to read this. First, it could be that those making $100K can afford to take vacations and, therefore, take them more frequently. An equally plausible explanation is that those who make a habit of taking time away from the workplace are productive enough to earn $100k, and they continue their time-off habits.

This is clearly a chicken-and-egg question with no real solution. My experience, however, suggests that productive people accomplish a lot while at work, then they leave the work behind and enjoy the rest of their lives. This kind of work-life balance is important for the success of the team and the individual.

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Syndrome of Individuality

October 23, 2006

In a Financial Times article published this week, Professor Henry Mintzberg denounces the teaching of leadership so popular these days in U.S. MBA programs. His comments continue an ongoing debate about how B-schools can best prepare graduate students to meet the needs of modern organizations.

We have this obsession with ‘leadership’. Its intention may be to empower people, but its effect is often to disempower them. By focusing on the single person, leadership becomes part of the syndrome of individuality [that is] undermining organisations.

A syndrome of individuality has long been evident in American culture. Mass media focuses on singular leaders in positions of authority; the CEO, the president, the quarterback. We focus on individual “superstars” much more than effective contributors to collaborative efforts. Corporate reward structures often still focus on individual performance, or link only a small percentage of bonuses to the productivity of the team.

Excessive attention to leadership can be disheartening to many, because it appears to discount the value of non-leaders. Taking into account that so few employees ever become managers or corporate leaders, Ira Chaleff suggests in his book Courageous Follower that it is more important for companies to offer training on being a good follower than it is to concentrate solely on leadership. Such training can signal that the organization also values those who do not hold management positions, as well as teach important teamwork and “followship” skills. (This is not to suggest that companies should eliminate leadership training; rather that opportunities exist to broaden the scope of training.)

Clearly, many organizations have made progress in embracing a culture of collaboration, becoming flatter, and dispersing authority and accountability to those closest to the issues. With the urging of Mintzberg and others, is it possible that top-flight teaching institutions, and the country as a whole, will move away from the syndrome of individuality?

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Coaching to help others solve problems

October 20, 2006

During a recent conversation a few days ago, my friend Rosa Say made a comment that started me on a round of self-reflection. The simple comment was, “That is very coaching of you, Blaine.” Then yesterday, a colleague made almost the same statement! These comments are rewarding to me because in recent years I have made a conscious effort to enhance my coaching abilities, both personally and professionally.

Coaching is often identified as an essential skill for effective managers and leaders. But it has not always been that way.

During my early management experiences, my mentors (some very savvy businessmen) seldom mentioned coaching. The conventional wisdom for “dealing with” employees in those days focused on such things as providing clear instructions, communicating specific expectations, ensuring that employees had the necessary resources to complete their assignments, monitoring performance, and quickly correcting poor performance. While it is quite reasonable for managers to pay attention to each of these items, combined they exhibit an attitude that the manager knows best. They omit an important aspect of leadership, that of helping direct reports and team members to learn how to solve their own problems.

Whoever wrote the Wikipedia definition of coach hit the nail on the head:

A coach is a person who supports and directs another person or persons via encouragement and asking questions. It differs from a mentor in that a coach rarely offers advice. Instead, they help the client to find their own solutions, by asking questions that give them insight into their problem.

I even like this one sentence definition, “A coach is a person who supports and directs another person via encouragement and by asking questions to help them to find their own solutions.”

A key difference between the modern coaching approach to leadership and the 1980s vision of managers involves the source of solutions to problems. We now recognize that the best person to solve a problem is often the person closest to the problem- which is typically the team member, not the manager. Yet when someone is too close to problems, it is sometimes difficult for them to see all the angles or solution possibilities. Effective managers and team leaders engage in coaching to help broaden the viewpoint and grease the wheels to assist others in problem solving.
For me, learning to take a coaching approach required a shift in thinking. Tom Heck discusses making such a shift to become a “Coach Manager,” and posted this list of 31 specific changes in behavior and attitudes. Here are two examples:

OLD WAY: “You report to me”
NEW WAY: “Tell me how I can help”

OLD WAY: Solving all the problems
NEW WAY: Help others solve and prevent problems

While I appreciate comments from friends and colleagues about my own coaching, reading Tom’s list provides plenty ideas about continued opportunity for my personal development.

What about you? Are you coaching habits where you want them to be? Are you asking questions and encouraging others to help their problem solving?

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